Tinder And Evolutionary Psychology

Editor’s note: Liraz Margalit serves as Customer Experience Psychologist for ClickTale. Her job involves incorporating theory and academic research into customer analysis, building a conceptual framework for insights into online consumer behavior.

Mobile dating application Tinder has been criticized heavily due to its appearance-based matchmaking process, which many consider so shallow and superficial that it could only be used to facilitate casual sex.  However, the app’s popularity continues to grow at an extraordinary rate: it is currently available in 24 languages and boasts more than 10 million active daily users. It was also awarded TechCrunch’s Crunchie Award for “Best New Startup of 2013.”

The app’s runaway success cannot be attributed solely to singles looking for quick hook-ups. The counter-intuitive truth is that Tinder actually provides users with all the information they need to make an informed first impression about a potential long-term mate.  And it does so by matching our human evolutionary mechanism.

How Does It Work?

Tinder connects with users’ Facebook profiles to make a limited amount of personal data available to other users within a pre-set geographic radius. A Tinder profile includes only the user’s first name, age and photos, along with the Facebook friends (if any) they have in common with the person viewing the profile. Upon signing up, a user is provided with potential matches and the option to “like” or “dislike” each one based on his/her profile. If two users mutually “like” each other, they can begin a chat.

Tinder’s success stems from its simplicity and minimalism, which relates to how our cognitive system works. The only way that human beings could’ve survived as a species for as long as we have is by developing a decision-making apparatus that’s capable of making quick judgments based on very little information. Although we always ascribe our decisions to a rational, conscious-brain motivation, this supposed motivation is never the entire reason for our decisions; in fact, it often has nothing to do with it! We like to think of ourselves as rational human beings that base our decisions on logical processes, but most of our decisions occur unconsciously and based on minimal information.

How do Tinder users choose partners?

Finding a date on Tinder involves a three-stage decision making process:

  1. Rational Controlled Process – The user sets the gender, age range and geographic radius of a potential partner.
  2. Emotion-Oriented Process – As the app presents potential matches fitting the appropriate search criteria, the user chooses ‘like’ or ‘dislike’ based on an automatic emotional reaction to each photo.
  3. The Waiting Process – The third stage is out of the user’s control.  In order to engage another person in a chat, that person first has to ‘like’ the user back.

How can so little information prove valuable?

Tinder exposes its users to two types of factors: rational (Geographical Distance and Age) and emotional (Appearance and Requited Interest). Each of these factors makes a unique contribution to the decision making process.

Geographical Distance – Research shows that the best single predictor of whether two people will develop a relationship is how far apart they live. People are more likely to develop friendships with people who are nearby (ex. live in the same dorm or sit near each other in class).  An examination of 5000 marriage license applications in Philadelphia found that one third of the couples lived within five blocks of each other. Thus, geographical distance is a powerful predictor of the likelihood that two people will end up together.

Age – People with little or no age difference have significantly more in common than those with a larger age difference. When two people are the same age, they are generally at a similar stage in life, both psychologically and physically. They also likely share similar backgrounds, concerns, life challenges, and cultural/historical references. These similarities make it easier to find common conversational ground, and add an element of cohesiveness to a relationship that cannot be attained in relationships with a more notable age difference.

After the rational stage comes the emotional stage:

Appearance – Although it may seem shallow to admit it, we are strongly influenced by the physical attractiveness of others, and in many cases appearance is the most important determinant of whether or not we initially like a person. Infants who are only a year old prefer to look at faces that adults consider attractive, and we often subconsciously attribute positive characteristics such as intelligence and honesty to physically attractive people. Evolutionary psychologists have argued that this may be because physical attractiveness is an indicator of underlying genetic fitness. In other words, a person’s physical characteristics may be suggestive of fertility and health – two key factors in the probability of our genetic line’s survival and reproduction.

Furthermore, evidence has shown that most couples are closely matched in terms of physical attractiveness. This appears to be because we weigh a potential partner’s attractiveness against the probability that he/she would be willing to pair up with us. Thus, after the emotional process of categorizing a person as attractive, most of us have the self-awareness to determine whether society would perceive us as more, less or equally attractive as the potential partner. This determination affects our decision whether or not to approach the other person.

Looking beyond physical appearance, each image presented on Tinder also has a subtext. People use their photos to make identity claims – symbolic statements to convey how they would like to be seen. Examples include choice of clothing, presence or absence of jewelry and sunglasses, and the way they interact with other people in the photos. All of these signals shed additional light on the person in the image.

Similarly, behavioral residue refers to clues inadvertently included in the chosen photos. For example, smiling without a head tilt signals high self-esteem, selecting a close-up photo shows confidence and willingness to share minor flaws, and choosing a long-distance shot may indicate low self-esteem and a desire to hide flaws.

Requited Interest – Equipped with all this valuable information, the user waits for the final piece of the puzzle: will the other person “like” him back?  If so, this approval gives a positive kick to the interaction. People are naturally attracted to individuals who make them feel good about themselves, and a mutual “like” lets each party know that the other considers them attractive and approachable.

The Chat

Finally, the Tinder chat is an extremely valuable asset for filtering a potential partner.  Does he make a lot of spelling mistakes?  Does she dominate the conversation with self-aggrandizing comments?  Does he seem macho and disrespectful?

Here is a sample interaction documented by a female Tinder user:

He: “so, when can I see you?”

She: “What did you have in mind?”

He: “how about now?”

She: “Just so you know, I’m looking for a serious relationship. I’m not looking to play around.”

He: “To see you now is not playing around it called being spontaneous”

It is obvious from this brief exchange that these users are interested in completely different things. At this point, it should be easy for her to make a decision based on past experience and the understanding of the hidden meaning in his words.


When all the data collected during the Tinder matchmaking process is compiled, the emerging picture reveals a substantive amount of relevant information. Each of the provided clues helps the user to create a valuable mental picture of the person on the other side.  Interestingly, this picture is often more accurate than what we can develop with a larger amount of information. Consider such online dating websites as Match.com and OKCupid.  Unlike the minimalism of Tinder’s profile, these sites provide users the opportunity to build structured and detailed profiles, many of which contain inaccurate information. Users intentionally exaggerate their descriptions to portray themselves in the best possible light – something that just isn’t possible in the bare-bones format of Tinder.

Tinder’s popularity stems from its ability to match the human evolutionary mechanism. In a word, it is “distilled.” It cuts through the B.S., giving users only the data they need to develop a meaningful first impression. Though we like to think we base our decisions on a calculated cost-benefit evaluation, the truth is that most of the time we rely on automatic unconscious processes that have nothing to do with rationality. Thus, exposure to a detailed profile containing a person’s hobbies, education and personal information may lead us to conclude that our choice was influenced by these factors, but honestly once we know a potential mate’s geography, age, appearance and feelings about us, we have all the information we need.

And it is usually quite accurate.